Sports Movies: “Breaking Away” (1979)

Breaking Away 1979

No discussion of the best sports movies of all time is complete without including “Breaking Away,” the 1979 film that follows a young man who becomes obsessed with the sport of cycling. Dave Stohler (Dennis Christopher) lives in Bloomington, Indiana, and small college town that’s home to the Indiana University. He’s recently graduated from high school and spend most of his time either on his bike or hanging out with his three childhood friends, often swimming at the stone quarries. Mike (Dennis Quaid) is the angry ex-quarterback who hates being surrounded by the privileged college kids. Jackie Earle Haley plays Moocher the affable short guy while Cyril (Daniel Stern) is the lovable loser of the group.

The college kids call them “cutters” though they never actually worked in the mills that cut the limestone used to build the University. Their dads did that. Which brings us to the best character in this film, Dave’s father (Paul Dooley). Dave is driving his old man crazy. He hasn’t found a job, but even more annoyingly he’s become obsessed with Italian culture. His favorite cycling team is from Italy, so he’s started speaking Italian, playing opera music and calling his dad “papa.” Paul Dooley’s performance as Ray Stohler is easily one of the funniest dad (or “papa”) characters in film history, and this relationship helps drive story in the film. Barbara Barrie is also excellent as Dave’s mom Evelyn, providing a touch of tenderness and sanity to the family.

Dave also begins a relationship with a pretty college girl Katherine (Robyn Douglass) by using his knowledge of Italian to pose as a foreign exchange student from Naples. This leads to some fun scenes and helps to highlight the college life that Dave secretly craves, though he can’t admit that to himself.

Robyn Douglass as Katherine in Breaking Away 1979

The film relies on the familiar tropes, with the working-class kids from the town pitted against spoiled and obnoxious college kids, but the script adds so much more to the story with the character development of Dave, his parents and his friends, making it all work brilliantly.

The film has a 95% score from critics and an 88% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert called the film a “cinematic miracle.” Writer Steve Tesich won the Oscar for Best Screenplay, while the film received four more nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Barrie) and Best Original Score. The film deserved all these honors, but it’s a crime that Dooley didn’t get an Oscar nomination for his unforgettable performance as Mr. Stohler.

“Breaking Away” is much more than a sports movie, but the climactic race at the end in the Little 500 firmly plants this film in the genre. The filming of the scene at the old Memorial Stadium on the IU campus is impressive and delivers on the kind of competitive drama you expect from a great sports film.

This movie is for everyone. You can watch it with your friends or with your kids. And it’s a must-see if you’re a cycling enthusiast.

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